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How was your year? December 31, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in life.
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Watching my Facebook stream I’ve seen a bunch of comments about how bad their 2010 was. That got me to thinking about my 2010. Actually, I’m lucky: it has been pretty good. I got to live for almost 4 months in the South of France (and got a lot of work done there), the ‘mo moved through her 4’s – a very cool age (for those of you who can’t remember that far back!). Work-wise was also great – had my last Tevatron student get his Ph.D., finished being convener of the ATLAS b-tagging group, watched the first set of calibrations for b-tagging get “published”, and effort I helped start over 3 years ago, hired a very cool post-doc. And got to learn a bunch of things.

That isn’t to say lots of bad stuff happened – the poor economy continues to push back; I’ve not had a raise for the last two years and I would guess I won’t have one for the next two either. However, I do have a job, and, even, a job I like a lot. My eyes are going. Our condo’s price still hasn’t recovered.

Bye 2010! Looking forward to 2011. Oh, wait, I only have a few hours to make resolutions! Ack!


Email is dead! Long live… err… uhh…. hmmm… December 29, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in email, physics life.

You know when something is past when the old grey lady picks it up. Apparently e-mail is dead.

The problem with e-mail, young people say, is that it involves a boringly long process of signing into an account, typing out a subject line and then sending a message that might not be received or answered for hours. And sign-offs like “sincerely” — seriously?

Those of you around the web I’m sure have seen this – murmurs have been going on a long time about the death of email. Text – on the phone – has been taking over. You have to look no further than text message usage statistics to see this is very real… 1 in 3 ‘teens send more than 100 text messages a day. [I wasn’t able to find any recent over-all usage statistics for text, but this one is back in 2005] If you look at similar plots of # of cell phones out there, you’ll note the increase is faster – we are sending more of these messages than we used to. Facebook, which is attempting to be our communications hub, is altering how it does email – removing the subject line, etc. – making it more like text messaging. Hotmail and Gmail and Yahoo Mail have already gone through this and they continue further down this road.

I, of course, teach, and so am often in contact with lots of students… and they say the same thing. We’ve heard the comment “I only read my email because old people send me things, like my parents or professors.” (no, I’m not making that up…).

But, really, is email dead? Can it be so? Or is it a situational thing?

David McDowell, senior director of product management for Yahoo Mail … said this was less a generational phenomenon than a situational one. Fifteen-year-olds, for example, have little reason to send private attachments to a boss or financial institution.

This I can buy. Heck, I’m a huge user of email and I am religious about putting a subject on all my emails when I send them professionally. When I use Facebook email for a quick note to a friend of mine… almost never put a subject on it. I am definitely seeing more use of IM – especially now that Facebook has allowed 3rd parties to tap into its IM system – people often contact me through that system with questions or comments – for a quick chat about some physics gossip or where to find some paper, etc.

But with students – the next generation – it really does seem like a more fundamental change is occurring. At the moment, when they enter the work force, they are entering our world and so are, at some level, forced to adopt our model of e-mail usage. But that will change – us old people are living on borrowed time – at some point we will be living in their world. How will communication look? Will it look similar to today or will it be a continuous stream of constant interruptions as text messages roll in? Or will it be a mix of the two, depending on the topic and the kind of question that is being asked?

And second, how do you deal with the modern class? Say I have 250 students. I want to tell them to study chapters 1-7 for the exam later this week. Normally I’d blast a class-wide email. Should I be setting up a class fan-page on facebook (and not all of them will be members)? Get the phone number for them all so I can send a text (sounds like too much work)? Just post to a web page and assume they saw it?

My guess is that all those emails which people just add one “line” and then hit send on are going to become a thing of the past – they will become these text and IM’s we’ve been talking about. How is this for starters? In our experiments we have a number of email lists. The name of the email lists should double as a chat room. When you have a question you post to the chat room. If no one replies, you create a more detailed (and formal) email.

Other ideas?

Did ATLAS Make a Big Mistake? December 16, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, computers.

Ok. That is a sensationalistic headline. And, the answer is no. ATLAS is so big that, at least in this case, we can generate our own reality.

Check out this graphic, which I’ve pulled form a developer survey.


Ok, I apologize for this being hard to read. However, there is very little you need to read here. The first column is Windows users, the second Linux, and the third Mac. The key colors to pay attention to are red (Git), Green (Mercurial), and Purple (Subversion). This survey was completed just recently, has about 500 people responding. So it isn’t perfect… But…

Subversion, Mercurial, and Git are all source code version control systems. When an experiment says we have 10 million lines of code – all that code is kept in one of these systems. The systems are fantastic – they can track exactly who made what modifications to any file under their control. It is how we keep anarchy from breaking out as >1000 people develop the source code that makes ATLAS (or any other large experiment) go. Heck, I use Subversion for small little one-person projects as well. Once you get used to using them you wonder how you ever did without them.

One thing to note is that cvs, which is the grand-daddy of all version control systems and used to be it about 10 or 15 years ago doesn’t even show up. Experiments like CDF and DZERO, however, are still using them. The other thing to note… how small Subversion is. Particularly amongst Linux and Mac users. It is still fairly strong in Windows, though I suspect that is in part because there is absolutely amazing integration with the operating system which makes it very easy to use. And the extent to which it is used on Linux and the Mac may also be influenced by the people that took the survey – they used twitter to advertise it and those folks are probably a little more cutting edge on average than the rest of us.

Just a few years ago Subversion was huge – about the current size of Git. And there in lies the key to the title of this post. Sometime in March 2009 ATLAS decided to switch from cvs to Subversion. At the time it looked like Subversion was the future of source control. Ops!

No, ATLAS doesn’t really care for the most part. Subversion seems to be working well for it and its developers. And all the code for Subversion is open source, so it won’t be going away anytime. At any rate, ATLAS is big enough that it can support the project even if it is left as one of the only users of it. Still… this shift makes you wonder!

I’ve never used Git and Mercurial – both of which are a new type of distributed source control system. The idea is that instead of having a central repository where all your changes to your files are tracked, each person has their own. They can trade batches of changes back and forth with each other without contacting the central repository. It is a technique that is used in the increasingly high speed development industry (for things like Agile programming, I guess). Also, I’ve often heard the term “social coding” applied to Git as well, though it sounds like that may have to do more with the GitHub repository’s web page setup than the actual version control system. It is certainly true that anyone I talk to raves about GitHub and other things like that. While I might not get it yet, it is pretty clear that there is something to “get”.

I wonder if ATLAS will switch? Or, I should say, when it will switch! This experiment will go on 20 years. Wonder what version control system will be in ascendance in 10 years?

Update: Below, Dale included a link to a video of Linus talking about GIT (and trashing cvs and svn). Well worth a watch while eating lunch!

Linus on GIT– he really hates cvs and svn–and makes a pretty good case

The Particle Physics Version of the Anecdote December 13, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, Hidden Valley.

Anecdotes are wonderful things, used (and misused) all the time. They tell great little stories, can be the seed of a new idea, or bring down an argument. Have something that is always true? Then you need but one anecdote to bring it tumbling to the ground. People fighting the evolution vs. creationism battle know this technique well! Of course, it is often misused too – an anecdote does not a theory make or break!

In experimental particle physics we have our own version of an anecdote: the event display. In the anecdotal sense we use it mostly in the sense that it is the seed of a new idea. Our eyes and brain are better at recognizing a new pattern than any computer algorithm currently known. I’ve often said that gut instinct does play a role in physics – and the event display is one place where we learn our gut instinct!

Take, for example, this event display shown by Monica Verducci at the Discrete2010 conference


You are looking at the inner detector of ATLAS – first (from inner to outer) are the highly accurate pixel detectors, then the silicon strip detectors, and finally all the dots are the transition radiation detector (TRT). The hits from a simulated Hidden Valley event are shown. Now, so the average particle physicist most of that display looks very normal, and wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. Except for two features. Opposite each other, just above and below the horizontal, there are two plumes of particles. While plumes of particles (“jets”) are not uncommon, the fact that they draw to a point a long way – meters – from the center of the detector is. Very uncommon in fact.

Your eye can pick those out right away. Perhaps, if you aren’t a particle physicist, you didn’t realize those were unique, but I bet your eye got them right away, regardless. Now, the problem is to develop a computer algorithm to pick those guys out. It may look trivial – after all something that your eye gets that easily can’t be that hard – but it turns out not to be the case. Especially using full blown tracking to find those guys… tracking that is tuned to find a track that originates from the center of the detector. Just starting at it like this I’m having a few ideas of things we could do to find those tracks.

Say you already have an algorithm, but it fails some 30% of the time. Then you might take 100 interactions that fail, make event displays of all of them, create a slide show, and then just watch them one after the other. If you are lucky you’ll start to see a pattern.

None of this proves anything, unfortunately. Anecdotes aren’t science. But they do lead to ideas that can be tested! Once you have an idea for the algorithm you can write some code – which is not affected by human bias! – and run it on your sample of interactions. Now you can test it, and you measure its performance and see if your idea is going to work. By measuring you’ve turned your anecdote into science.

That is what I mean by the event display can be the germ of an idea. I’ve seen this technique used a number of times in my field. Though not enough! Our event displays are very hard to use and so many of us (myself included) tend to use them as a last resort. This is unfortunate, because when looking for some new sort of pattern recognition algorithm – as in this case – they are incredibly valuable. Another trend I’ve noticed – the old generation seems to resort to these much quicker than the younger ones. <cough>bubble chambers<cough>.

Just like with real anecdotes, we particle physicists misused our event displays all the time. The most public example is we show an event display at a conference and then call it “a typical event.” You should chuckle. Anytime you hear that it is code for “we searched and searched for the absolutely cleanest event we could find that most clearly demonstrates what we want you to think of as normal and that probably will happen less than once every year.” <smile>

Wikileaks December 3, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in politics.
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Normally I try to stick to science and things affecting education (or just not write much), but I find the Wikileaks thing in the news lately fascinating for several reasons. The most mundane of which is I’ve always been interested in international diplomacy and this gives quite a peak into what conversations were actually going on. When I was reading lots of books (more on that in a future post, if I get back to posting) one of the topics was international relations. In many cases the authors would use public actions to infer the diplomacy that must have gone on behind closed doors. This gives us a glimpse into that – and I can’t wait to see more articles sifting through the cables.

I suspect how you feel about Wikileaks depends on where you sit on two issues. First, do you trust your government when it comes to doing the right thing internationally? If the answer is no, then I would guess that anything that makes the government more transparent you will like. The other axis is how much damage you think this causes to the US’ ability to conduct international relations and, perhaps, how important it is to get unvarnished opinions from others around the globe without their fear of their words being published. The balance of those two issues probably governs your basic reaction. Personally, I’m more concerned about the latter.

But that isn’t what prompted me to write this.

Everyone is going after Wikileaks. They have been kicked off servers in the UK, now out of Amazon, and as I write this their servers are offline or at least not responding. My guess is that since countries are out to get Wikileaks and its founder, its life is going to be short. But… I think it doesn’t matter what happens to Wikileaks.

When you break it down, Wikileaks is doing two things, well, three things.

  1. First, Wikileaks receives the secrets. Someone sends it to them with the expectation that they will publish the secrets and do their best to keep them secret.
  2. Wikileaks does do some filtering – removing names, etc., and other things that are obvious references to names that might get people killed or similar.
  3. Indexing and collation. This is especially true of the latest batch of cables – if Wikileaks had dumped the complete trove on the web it would have been a lot less accessible or interesting to most of us. Right now you can just browse their website and look at topics and look at the cables that concern that topic.
  4. Finally they publish the secrets to the web and the world.

I think it is a given that as long as you have humans working with secrets you’ll have leaks. So I don’t think the source of leaks in the world is going to dry up. I think this is especially true now that Wikileaks has shown everyone how easy it is to publish the secrets. But lets say Wikileaks goes away, and that the world is successful in keeping new Wikileaks clones from being created. Now what?

Well, we already know how to widely publish something we aren’t supposed to with very little effort. It is called file sharing! Once a file gets started it is very difficult to tell exactly where it came from – and so it quickly becomes anonymous. That takes care of step #1 and #4. What about #3? I’m going to go with crowdsourcing here. The idea is that some data is published and then the people who are interested will comb through it and publish their findings online. Blogs, tweets, etc. That takes care of #3.

This isn’t without problems in the future. For example, #2 won’t be dealt with – or you’ll have to rely on every single person who is combing through the data. Second, #4 isn’t going to be as nice – it will be spread all over the web. Perhaps more serious is the way #4 will occur – most people who put up the information will also put up a interpretation – perhaps cherry picking the comments. We saw a classic example of this with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ClimategateClimateGate. I’m not sure how well #1 is going to work. Doing that with file sharing isn’t trivial. You have to have a computer connected to the net and up and running long enough to publish the fact that you have this file – something someone leaking a secret may not like to do. There are other methods – but it is unlikely that the person who has access to the secrets also knows how to publish them anonymously and effectively.

None-the-less the information is out there for all to see. Now that these leaked secrets have gotten so much publicity and people will start to realize how easy it is. So, while Wikileaks might disappear I think the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. You know the saying, right? Don’t write anything in email you wouldn’t want repeated, even if it is a private email… well… more proof!